Today we read Luke’s account of the preaching of John the Baptist. The first thing to take note of is the fact that Luke again takes great pains to establish when this is taking place. He establishes the time frame by detailing who the various political and religious leaders were at he the time. This again goes to highlight that Luke’s gospel is researched and detailed, meant to establish the things it talks about as historical events not mere myth or stories.
Next, Luke tells us that the word of God came to John and established him in this mission. This is a common idiom to establish that someone is a prophet. It is meant to place John in the line of the great prophets of Israel.
Next we see that Luke refers to a famous passage in Isiah to establish John’s prophetic mission:
And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight. ….
This is interesting because this verse is used by the Essens as a verse that supported their way of life. Recall that the Essens were a sect of monastic Jews who lived in the desert outside of Jerusalem. They were like the Pharisees except that they practiced what they preached. We know about them because they left behind many documents in the caves of Qumron. These documents were found centuries later and became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among the documents are things like the rules of their order and for their way of life. This verse from Isiah is found there. Thus is another bit of evidence that John was a member of the Essen community. For the sake of completeness recall that the man carrying the water jug that led the Apostles to the room for the Last Supper was probably an Essen. And the room that is the traditional site of the Last Supper is in the Essen quarter of Jerusalem. Finally, recall that the Essens practiced celibacy as did Jesus. And also found among the Dead Sea Scrolls are original Hebrew copies of some of the books Martin Luther removed from the Bible after the reformation. All these things are probably not sufficient to establish that John the Baptist or Jesus were definitively part of the Essen sect. However, the provide tantalizing clues into the backstory of the Gospel.
Luke has already told us that John was, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Then he tells us more specifically what his message was:
8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Notice, John is specifically rejecting the idea that this is an Old Covenant form or repentance or forgiveness. He says it has nothing to do with being “children of Abraham.” If it is not old covenant forgiveness than it is New Covenant forgiveness. This makes sense because John’s mission was to, “Prepare the way of the Lord”. Notice, the message is to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” and “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Jesus will repeat this metaphor when speaks of himself as the vine and us as the branches. Branches that do not bear good fruit are pruned (John 15). Thus from the earliest moment the message of the Gospel is a message of repentance and good works. Repentance is not true repentance unless you change the way you live and do good works as penance and training to habitualize yourself unto good works.